A remarkable and extraordinarily rare broadside simultaneously commemorating and mocking the experience of African-American freedmen during the Revolutionary era.
During the run-up to the American Revolution it was not lost on British Tories that many leading Patriots advocated “liberty” while adamantly defending their right to own slaves (Perhaps the most memorable phrase in this regard is attributed to Samuel Johnson: “Why do we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of negroes?”) The slave trade and slavery itself were yet to be outlawed in the British Empire—the former was banned in 1807, the latter in 1833—but the Somerset decision of 1772 certainly gave the Tories the moral high ground. The case concerned the fate of James Somerset, a slave purchased in Boston then brought to England, who then escaped, was recaptured and threatened with shipment to the sugar plantations of the West Indies. The court found in favor of Somerset, ruling that there was no basis for slavery in English common law.
While large numbers of African Americans ended up fighting on the Rebel side—by some estimates making up roughly 20-25 percent of the Continental Army—thousands of others cast their lot with the Empire. Many of these were slaves freed by the British Army during its occupation of large parts of the South, while others had self-emancipated, lured by proclamations promising freedom to escapees. A small number of the freedmen entered service in the British Army, most famously in the “Ethiopian Regiment” established by Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore in 1775. Many more sought refuge behind British lines, particularly in the headquarters cities of Charleston and New York.
At war’s end thousands of these freedmen and -women were given transport out of the Colonies. The vast majority were sent to Nova Scotia, where most settled to the south of Halifax at Birchtown, which became the largest North American community of free African-Americans. A far smaller number, probably in the low hundreds, were sent to London.
Yankee Doodle. Or The Negroes Farewell to America
This remarkable piece of sheet music highlights the hypocrisy of slaveholding patriots, makes none-too-subtle digs at the primitive conditions of American life, and seems to anticipate the exile of freed African Americans. The lyrics open with a gloating farewell to “my Massa my Mis-sey,” “[No] More blows or more stripes will me e’er take from you / or will me come hither or thither me go no help make you rich by de sweat of my brow.” The following three stanzas recount the many travails of a slave’s life in America,
“Farewell all de Yams & farewell de salt Fish / De Bran & Spruce Beer you all me cry Pish….
“Farewell de Musketo farewell de black fly / And Rattle Snake too who may sting me to dye….
“Farewell de cold Winter de Frost & de Snow / Which cover high Hills and de Valleys so low.”
The final stanza contrast these conditions most unfavorably with the exile’s life in England, where “Me feed upon Pudding Roast Beef & Strong Beer” and “where Liberty reigns / Where Negroe no beaten or loaded with chains.”
None of this implies that British Tories were free from the stain of racism, any more than their Abolitionist brethren in 19th-century America. Indeed, the crude sentiments and faux African-American language of the Negroes Farewell lyrics anticipate the vile “Bobalition of Slavery” broadsides that appeared in Boston in the 1820s. Due in no small part to the deeply-ingrained culture of discrimination—though harsh climate and economic factors surely played a role—the freedmen’s communities in London and Nova Scotia failed to prosper. Many ultimately accepted a British offer of transport to Africa, where they were settled in the new colony of Sierra Leone.
The broadside is undated, but the partnership of Charles and Samuel Thompson was active between 1763 and 1776 or 1777. The content certainly suggests that it was issued during the Revolution. It is also extremely rare: Though I find numerous references in the literature on the African-American experience during the Revolution, all illustrate the same example, from the collections of the Boston Public Library. The only other impression I have been able to locate is held by the British Library.
OCLC 497676975 giving impressions only at the Boston Public, British Library only. In fairness, some number of impressions are likely bound in volumes of sheet music and unremarked by cataloguers. For a long discussion of the origins of Yankee Doodle, which mentions the Negroes Farewell, see Oscar George Theodore Sonneck, compiler, Report on “The Star-Spangled Banner” “Hail Columbia” “America” “Yankee Doodle.” (Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific, pp. 79-156.
Old folds, minor soiling at edges, paginated in ms at upper right corner and on verso.